Flying cars have captured the popular imagination ever since a 40-year-old dad named George Jetson zipped around the air (and TV’s airwaves) in a cool, glass-topped coupe in 1962.George and his clan—wife Jane, teenage daughter Judy, and six-year-old son Elroy—were the cartoon stars of The Jetsons, a prime-time sitcom about a 21st-century space-age family. In the show, George flies his car through the skies of Orbit City every day, literally dropping his kids off at school and his wife at the shopping mall (they speed to their destinations in glass tubes) before heading for work.
Set in 2062, the show was way ahead of its time—many of its sci-fi features, including robots, treadmills, smartwatches, home computers, cell phones, EKGs, and MRIs have already become reality. Inevitably, flying cars will be added to the list. And, unlike George, real-life sky pilots won’t have to wait until 2062.
Capitalizing on the public interest in self-driving cars, a handful of companies—start-ups as well as aviation giants and popular ride-hailing services—are working on prototypes. Although the vehicles aren’t quite ready to solo yet, there have been test flights around the world, including in China, Germany, and Dubai.
All eyes are on the early 2020s. Uber, which has partnered with a host of aircraft manufacturers and has signed deals with the US Army and NASA, expects to hold demonstrations in 2020 and launch its commercial sky fleets in Dallas-Fort Worth/Frisco, Texas, and Los Angeles, by 2023. And it has plans to add a third city outside of the United States.
“We are actively focused on cities facing issues like congestion,” according to an Uber Elevate spokesperson. “We want uberAIR to be something that improves life for cities—that’s why we’re designing it to be quiet, with zero emissions, and affordable so everyone can have access to it.”
These vertical take-off and landing vehicles and personal air (or aviation) vehicles look like they’d be a perfect fit in George Jetson’s skyline.
Some resemble spaceships or sleek sci-fi race cars; others are equipped with retractable wings or drone-like propellers that lift them off their wheels. Not all are the products of big business or high-flying, high-financed tech start-ups. The same convergence of breakthrough technology that is driving driverless cars—the increased performance of batteries, advances in drone and car production, and 3-D metal printing—is making it possible for everyday entrepreneurs with big ideas and small budgets to produce viable prototypes.
Gwen Lighter, CEO of GoFly, a two-year international competition offering $2 million in prizes to design and build personal aviation vehicles, says that the innovation needed to get flying cars off the ground will come from the ground up.
“This is the golden age of aviation,” she says. “For the first time in history, we have the ability to make people fly. GoFly was started to catalyze the creation of a multitude of options so the people can choose.”
The 10 winners of GoFly’s first round did, indeed, come up with some creative designs. If they are right, we may be riding in cars that look like helicopter hybrids, hummingbird capsules, hot-air balloons, aerodynamic recliners, and, yes, even flying saucers.
Building a viable flying car is only one small part of the equation, and it might not even be the most important one.
In the United States, to get cars to fly in the sky, the FAA not only has to be on board, it also has to come up with a new set of regulations for sky driving. In the beginning, at least, professional pilots will be the ones in the cockpits. That, in and of itself, could prove problematic because by the 2020s, when the first vehicles take off, there is expected to be such an acute shortage of pilots that there will not be enough to take the controls of conventional planes, much less flying cars.
Terrafugia, which hopes to get its Transition to market in 2019, classifies it as a light sport aircraft, which, according to Håkan Apell, director of business development and marketing, parts the skies. “Getting a light sport license is a much faster process than a private aircraft license,” he says. “With it, you can get airborne from a nearby airfield.”
Teaching car drivers to take their skills to the sky would not only require extensive training, but also a lot of time. Many people won’t be able to make the switch, even if an autopilot is on hand to take the controls for all or part of the trip.
The rules of the sky spark all kinds of novel questions: Who flies first at an intersection? Do cars take priority over drones? How do you know where to stop? What’s the speed limit? What kind of signage will there be below the clouds? Will horns sound like smartphone ringtones? Does the baby need a sky seat?
Flying car creators are working closely with regulators. A³ by Airbus, for example, has launched Altiscope, an unmanned traffic management group that is focusing on designing the aerial infrastructure.
For controlling high-speed intra-city taxis, Victoria Chibuogu Nneji, a researcher at Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, envisions a network of air operations control centers that would interact with air traffic controllers and coordinate with hubs where human and machine systems would provide dispatcher-like support and manage emergencies.
Regular roads, too, will need makeovers to include charging stations for the vehicles, which are battery-operated or hybrids, take-off and landing strips, and even airport adjuncts.
Although some of the prototypes promote the fact they fit in standard-size garages, landing strips, whether communal or individual, will have to be incorporated into architectural designs of homes.
And it’s unclear whether flying cars will truly be personal aviation vehicles or whether they will operate only as taxi fleets. A combination presents even more complicated issues of coordination.
Experts say that these obstacles will be overcome, but it will take time. Indeed, it’s likely that the cars will be ready long before the skies are cleared for their takeoff.
When the cars do finally come on the market, the first flights will be in unpopulated areas, where they can (theoretically) do no harm, and by design, the distances they travel will be short because they aren’t meant to replace wingless cars so much as to supplement them. And they will be small—only one or two passengers will fit in most of the ones being developed.
This does not mean that everyone will immediately take to the skies.
“In the beginning, it will be the privileged people, and that market is small,” says Nneji. “The cars will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—the same price as a house. There could be shared vehicles, but even if you own one, you would still have to pay for a pilot, parking, and charging. Even the taxi service will cost more, about one and a quarter times to three times more.”
And it doesn’t means that trips will be any faster or more stress free, because at some point the skies, like the streets, will get crowded.
By that time, it’s possible that flying cars will have been replaced by sophisticated Star Trek-like systems that beam us up wherever and whenever we want to go. Or perhaps we will simply close our eyes, envision a destination, and have our mind transport us in a nanosecond. (Think of all the money that would save in fuel.)
Despite all the advances that have been made with flying cars, we still haven’t caught up with The Jetsons. George, for instance, never had to worry about finding a parking space in the sky. When he got to his destination, all he had to do was flick a switch, and his coupe instantly folded up into a briefcase that was lightweight enough for him to carry into the office.
Then again, we still have nearly a half century before it’s 2062. It gives us something to wish for while we’re soaring in the skies.